Monday, November 19, 2018

The Casita

The road from Las Vegas through the Mojave Desert is long. It is straight, and it is peaceful; one can go over 110 miles per hour in their car through these roads without attracting the attention of so much as a ground squirrel.  Not that I would have done this on my trip out to Desert Hot Springs this particular weekend. But it is possible. The roads - I swear they are the ones out of that scene in Forrest Gump where he just runs into the horizon and eventually has to turn back because they appear to lead nowhere. I flew down these roads, but unlike Forrest my Google maps told me they did lead somewhere. So I pressed on.

By the time I had arrived at this place, the desert "casita" according to air b&b, it was darkening. It was getting dark and the heavy locks on the gate and the instructions which I could not pull up on my phone on account of the bad reception and my memory failing made it difficult. This place I finally arrived at after sundown on Friday night; it was totally silent. The thousands of cars pouring into Las Vegas on I-15 in the northbound lanes as I flew the other way were not looking for silence. But as a resident of Vegas, one begins to need this silence to stay sane. The ring of the slots, the music pouring from the clubs, the engines of the jets flying in and out of Mccarran... it makes for a constant drone, one that stays with you even as you lay in bed at night.

These sounds now became the crackle of gravel underneath tires; the chirping of crickets; the clank of metal on metal as the locked clicked and the big gate swung open. These were the new sounds that broke the silence of this Mojave Desert evening. As I arrived, for a moment my mind wondered to the recent prison break in Los Angeles a few days prior and my curious study of a map about where one might go if they where running from the law; they probably wanted silence, too. So I went into the house with a dog and a backpack and a Beretta in my hand and put that out of my mind - because silence and seclusion is good, but it's also good to have an insurance policy.

The house smelled of old wood and books and gave the sort of comfort that is unique when you know it is the only roof around you for miles. It was simple and small and had a clawfoot tub in the middle of the front yard which had a hose running to it in some attempt at a hot tub I suppose. There was a record player with a bunch of old records: Ella Fitzgerald, Gershwin, the soundtrack to My Fair Lady. Clearly the owner had class or was desperately trying to appear that way. So I put on the Ella and felt truly high class as I cracked open Michener and a bottle of wine; I lit a fire and Abby lay at my feet on the porch as the sun set.

By the time Greg and Veronica arrived that evening it was dark and I'd been through the Ella twice and a few chapters of Michener which were very long chapters and half the bottle of wine and stoked the fire three times. I also found out that you could flip the record to hear more songs. Marvelous. The headlights came down the road so bright and I squinted as they lit up the front of the casita like it were some criminal being interrogated. I hoped it was them because those escapees from Los Angeles still lingered in my mind.

This place was so far from Las Vegas. All those people I'd passed going the other way. The bright lights. The activity. But here: the stars. Millions of tiny bright pinpricks against the darkness. We dragged out the cheap telescope and a camera and tripod through the cactus far into the yard and I showed Greg how to take night time pictures which did not turn out correctly. But the stars put on a show. Just a few hundred miles away, Luxor pierced into the sky with its bright vertical spotlight. But here: God showed His light. Ella sang her songs. The fire burned. I escaped.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

An Obsession with Models

I have two loves: My family. And data. They occupy in my mind and heart spaces of an overlapping nature, so I cant say the two are totally separable. My microeconomics professor once related a story to me about driving down a lonely Ohio road on a family trip to someplace more interesting (read: not in Ohio) one weekend, babies and kids in tow in the back seat, with a distant yet pensive look on his face that led his wife to ask him, "What are you thinking about, honey?"

With a slight (mistakably creepy) grin, he said: "Models."

Given that this poor gal probably knew what she was getting into when she married an economist, this comment was not followed up by a crisp and sudden slap in the face, but rather an, "Oh, Chuck... you and your models. Don't your ever stop?"

Welcome to the life of a data-nerd/economist.

Any of us 'data nerds' will understand that Chuck was not talking about the underfed version of 'model' clad in a bikini walking down a well lit runway somewhere in Los Angeles, California, but rather the kind that you scribble out on a halfway dirty napkin that seeks to identify the rational choice of an individual to either walk or stand still up an moving escalator given the equilibrium point of the marginal utility of both reaching the top of this escalator in a timely way and the marginal dis-utility of expected energy expenditure from doing so. Simple scenario right? But says Chuck to any fellow microeconomist: this is a your classic Lagrangian. All you need is a proper model. OK.. Tyra - let's go.

Erp. Wrong model.

OK, I barely passed Chuck's class and the exams in which I was expected model out such scenarios in detail I typically had to leave 50% blank while I watched the minute hands of the clock tick away and my hopes at graduating get dimmer and dimmer. So... I will not claim that I mastered the technique of modeling out such scenarios in a Harvard (which Chuck obviously was) economist style way.

[SIDEBAR] Let me just say: thank God Chuck graded these exams on a curve. And also, screw you John Hollingsworth for ruining that curve for me... I mean really? Undergraduate guy opts to take grad school class... proceeds to make all us grad school kids look like fumbling idiots and ruin our curve? Go back to Geniusland John Hollingsworth. OK, John. Truth is I was just jealous. And I still am. [END SIDEBAR]

But back to models. Ever since then it has not been lost on me that there is a basis to similarly model out every decision in all of our lives. That the human brain is a complex computer that is absorbing information and optimizing marginal costs and benefits of decisions like this thousands of times every day. Ultimately, we do not spend time thinking about the decision itself or any of this 'optimizing,' as we similarly do not think about the fascinating complexity of an internal combustion engine every time we drive; we just know that when we press the gas, the car goes - but that does not mean that all that complexity and mathematics involved is not at work.

Why does it matter to us? It all intertwines. And it adds a framework to think about everyday things in a way you may never have imagined. For example (and to plug another post of mine) this data viz is all about the optimization involved in the decision of a potential travel destination (#firstworldproblems). I have actually used this as a framework for making this decision. I bought my Subaru Legacy 2.5i based on a weighted average of price, gas mileage, warranty, drivetrain type and several other factors which I framed out in an excel model. Many people may just look at a few cars and make a decision based on their gut... but if I can get that bad boy into an excel spreadsheet and model it out... you better believe I'm going to do it.

Welcome to the life of a data nerd.

I'm not saying there is never a situation where one may stray from this; if memory serves me correct, Jenn and I bought plane tickets to Spain shortly after splitting a pitcher of Sangria and several tapas at our favorite Spanish restaurant in Las Vegas... I am not sure the Lagrangian we were optimizing there... but that turned out to be an incredible trip and I am not sure any model other than Rioja and fabulously crafted croquettas would have led us to this point of optimization, but optimize we did.


Our world and our lives are surrounded by all these situations/decisions and we make them every day whether we know it or not. All of us are constantly optimizing our utility. What's your Lagrangian?

Friday, August 24, 2018

On Safari: The Maasai

Being in the backcountry of Africa had presented some incredible opportunities to witness things I never had. An elephant charging our car only to be shouted off by a tiny (by comparison) man with a big attitude. A patient cheetah stalking her prey for what seemed like hours, finally scoring a meal for she and her three cubs. A pride of lions encircling our camp to close in on a clever water buffalo who knew her best chance at refuge was to walk amongst the world's foremost apex predators (and in the meantime worrying many of the American variety of these apex predators). It was stunning to witness these things unfold in the land which these creatures called home. To watch them behave as they have behaved for the millennia in which they have dominated the Serengeti plain. This land is nearly unspoiled by man, far away from the rapid development of the last few hundred years and barren of the resources which have caused many other areas of the continent to be mined, drilled or scraped of its character.

But perhaps the most foreign element of all to the entire trip was not the elephant the lion nor the cheetah, it was the people. Living among these wild creatures all around the Serengeti are the Maasai. They have learned to coexist with nature here and live a primitive and nomadic existence on the vast plain, shepherding their herds of goats and cows from place to place as their resources dried up or become more abundant elsewhere. They would leave behind their humble circular Shambas made of cow dung and sticks as they moved, only to recreate the same village again to put down temporary roots after each time.

These people were those that made up our guides, our spotters and the camp staff. To even quantify their existence based on the money they lived on in a day seemed silly, as none of them took part in an economy which saw any need for currency. They lived, breathed and existed for each other and for their cattle: eating their meat, drinking their blood and milk. The Maasai did not even need water as they could bleed and milk their cows and goats over and over again. In a remote plain where clean water was hard to come by, this was a key to their existence on the Serengeti: as long as the herd was healthy, they survived. They wore shoes made of recycled car tires or cow hide and richly colored robes and beads crafted by the women of their tribe.  The men all carried a seme, not much more impressive than a broken lawn mower blade, and this was their all purpose tool throughout their lives. Here chopping through underbrush to make a way to a waterhole for their cattle, there fighting back a lion from entering the gates of the Shamba at night and terrorizing the goat herd.

These men of the most humble existence I had ever seen took great pride in their way of life. In their early teens they were inducted into the warrior class, growing out their hair and charged as being protectors of their Shamba.  Sometime in their 20's then becoming junior elders, being circumsized without anestheisia in front of the elder council and officially entering into manhood, having proved themselves as protectors and worthy of a spot in the village and a woman (or several) to call a wife. And through all of this hardship; amid all of their humble surroundings; they looked at us like we were the ones to be pitied. They laughed and found it utterly ridiculous that we could not throw a spear straight and far. They could not understand how we could sit in a open vehicle a mere 200 yards from a camouflaged lion crouching in the grass and not see it clear as day. As entertaining as it may be for me to see one of them attempt to type a vlookup formula in Excel was the level of ridiculousness they likely saw in our western ways. How could we have gotten so far in life without having developed such essential skills as knowing the proper way to protect your family, friends and neighbors? To be able to spot a predator coming in enough time to develop a plan to evade or prepare for a fight?

In college as an Econ student I learned much about the West's efforts to 'enrich' the third world through foreign aid: World Bank or UNICEF grants and programs, designed to westernize these 'backwards' civilizations and often war torn or oppressed people. But I can recall being challenged in this thought when meeting and talking to some of these 'backwards' men and women. If I could flip a switch and westernize them... would they be better off? They would objectively have more money, yes. Better shoes. An education which would allow them to be a viable player in today's global economy. But really.. better off?

In economics we are taught that the rational individual sets out not to maximize their profits, their money or their wealth, but their 'utility'. It's the jargon-y economic term that basically means happiness. All rational decision making stems from this simple framework. We all strive to be happy, whether that be in amassing wealth, moving to that Thoreauesque cabin in the woods, or standing with a spear watching the sunset on the Serengeti. Some of us in this search find we have been pursing an incorrect course all along in order to achieve this utility, but we are all striving to get there nonetheless.

I couldn't help but think as I looked at these proud men that flipping that switch would have robbed them of all this utility and replaced it with a pursuit of happiness which was not at all in line with their own. The elephant dung (figuratively speaking) that I step in on an average day in the office is likely far less palatable to them than the elephant dung (literally speaking) which makes up the walls of their tiny homes on the Serengeti plain.

There were notable exceptions to this showing themselves among the tribe: on the one hand those that were indeed pursing the course of joining ranks with the westernized world. The young man wearing Levi jeans and a polo on break from studying law in Nairobi, but not ready to abandon the culture and traditions of his people. His face and mannerisms blending in with all of his tribesman, but with an appearance that would not have you look twice walking down the streets of New York City. He vowed to fight for the Maasai not with a seme, but in the government buildings of Kenya to bring state funds for building schools, roads, fresh water pumps

But on the other hand, there were those that have been forced into a sad existence from this fascinating culture: the women. I am not so naive as to be blind that taken out of context, traditions, cultures and lifestyles can seem strange or even objectively incorrect to a foreign observer. But it was hard not to gather that the women of the Maasai were little more than objects of their men. These women with their beautiful white smiles so bright against their deep dark skin had eyes that just looked beaten. Not in the physical sense,  but one of defeat. Despite being illegal under national law, the Maasai are among many people groups in Africa that still practice female genital mutilation - a dangerous ritual that (without going into details, not that I could even if I wanted to) has been shown to have lasting psychological effects similar to PTSD and diminishes the capacity for sexual desire at a very young age (often around 10). I found myself torn between viewing this just being one more interesting aspect of a culture I did not understand, or reaching for that switch and finding it a tragedy that the West had not come to rescue them from it.

You will many times over course of your lifetime see the lion, asserting that he is the master of his (if small) domain in the zoo. You will see many a bull elephant sauntering around his enclosure, lapping up water and feeding himself bails of hay with his mighty trunk. This at least gives one the perspective of the size and behavior of these beasts, to see them more or less as they look in the wild. But there is nothing comparable to seeing the Maasai. To see the men gather in the center of the shamba at sundown and watch the warriors face-off in how high they could vertically jump for sustained periods of time, the women chanting and the men all cheering them on. They cut an impressive and intimidating figure, their long beaded hair flying up in the air and their faces fierce as they fought to prove their manhood. They encouraged our group to join but I hid behind my camera and made the excuse that I could not trade participating for capturing it on film. This was true, yes, but I also could not help but recall that for what they lacked in Microsoft Excel prowess they made up for in stamina, a 30" vertical and a pretty damn scary war face; the inevitable result being me totally put to shame. I'll stick to the Excel.

As we left the shamba that night, the clouds had briefly broken on Kilimanjaro and provided a setting too perfect to seem true. We'd been told that "Killy" only peeps her head at twilight before the haze of the plains sets in daily in this season (and I'd woken up each morning in a failed attempt to capture this elusive sighting). Against this backdrop I thought of how I was but a few minutes Jeep ride back to a fully furnished tent which was worlds more comfortable than even their homes. From there I was a few hours drive and Cessna flight back to Nairobi, a bustling city which though clearly third world in many ways would have blown the minds of many of the humble Maasai. And finally after that: a 22 hour trip on a jumbo jet back to Denver, Colorado which I call home; doing chores around the house, in a few days getting back to work, and intaking as from a firehose the bombardment of mass media, talking heads and the sounds and smells of modern machinery everywhere in sight.

The desktop background of my work computer I set to be one of those photos I took of a mother cheetah perched on an anthill looking out on the Serengeti plain contemplating her next meal, but also I'd like to believe totally content in her surroundings. In a small way it takes me back there, helps me cut through all of the banality of a desk job... and I sometimes find myself thinking... I wish the Maasai would flip that switch for me.

Friday, July 27, 2018

#23. Mexico. Olmecs and Pool Decks.

As a child, I was fascinated by that show 'Legends of the Hidden Temple'. The one where the Silver Snakes battled the Blue Barracudas in super cool obstacle courses to uncover treasures while being hunted by hidden bloodthirsty native warriors. You know it if you are a kid of the 80's. I'd hold my breath the whole time in anticipation of the feathered barbarian to pop his head out and take one of the kids' three chances to get through the course. I wanted to be Kirk Fogg, the explorer, guide and/or host of the show costumed in tucked-in dad jeans and a fanny pack, to the point that I had my mom buy me a cargo pack so I could run around in my back woods being chased in my imagination by those Olmec warriors (this may also explain why I was so late in life to develop friends).

A poor American child about to be slain by an Olmec warrior
What am I getting at, you may ask? An autobiographical sketch of my early childhood? Maybe in part, but moreso: this, similar to many Americans of my generation, was my introduction to Mexico. Exotic. Dangerous. Ethnic. Full of native warriors and large stone heads in the jungle. This was the land that lay to the south, scorched by the sun (which many of them they still worship, I think) and full of mystery and adventure. This caricature of a vast land began to be engrained in my mind to the point where it became my reality. I'd seen that show, read that book. I got Mexico. 

High school classes taught me of the Gadsen purchase, the noble financial exchange in which diplomats of the United States of America met with Mexican gentleman to purchase the lower half of what is now New Mexico and Arizona. We learned of the Zimmerman telegram, when the Germans scandalously reached out to Mexico in an effort to have her betray our allegiance at the onset of The Great War. But she didn't. We were pals after all.

Then in college, the time when good wholesome young minds become corrupted and indoctrinated, I began to learn more of this ever increasingly complicated relationship between our two countries. I learned of the principle of Manifest Destiny, that midcentury 1800's American politicians decided the territory of the USA should reach to the Pacific from the Puget Sound to Baja Mexico, regardless of who laid claims there. How we systematically went about taking it for no apparent reason other than that we were able to. College is all about critical thinking, so I suppose all of this I took in with a healthy skepticism that my professor probably just hated America. 

Mexico was so simple when it was about the Olmecs and Kirk Fogg guiding excited children through ancient shrines and tombs. Little did I know that behind those Olmec Warriors were murderers and rapists also laying in wait to kill those innocent American children*. Thank goodness this was on Nickelodeon who I presume dutifully censored all of this from view. 

Let me pivot. Why is he talking about kids shows and murderers? My goodness. This is a travel blog! And yes, I traveled to Mexico. So I'll tell you a little about my experience. 

Mexico was serene. We arrived in the airport in Cabo on a Southwest flight with a mom and baby who were happy to be on the ground and to see Nanna and Papa. They greeted us with a big car, sunglasses and smiling faces. We drove through the dusty landscape for several miles making our way down toward Cabo - it's a journey that many American tourists have made, with visions of Cabo Wabo, body shots and late night hookups on their mind. The bar full of bros at the airport who could not wait to pregame before their drive down confirmed this stereotype. But this was not the Cabo we were to have. 

Mr. Jacob liked the pool, especially the short one where he could practice standing up, and I was proud that he slept so well in the bathroom away from all that he was familiar with. The beachside condo we were in was bright, comfortable and full of family that made the trip in want of nothing. Jacob was a little offset by the ocean, its waves and sand offending his baby sensibilities. But other than that, this version of Mexico seemed to totally suit the Grimes family. No Olmecs warriors laying in wait, not a rapist or a murderor in sight. 

Mexico passed quickly for us. And never did we leave sight of a fully Americanized version of it. But the exotic picture engrained in my head of this place made me feel a little different here than if I were in Key West or Laguna Beach. It gave me the feel of being on a little American island in the middle of an exotic and dangerous wasteland. That those Olmecs were still out there lurking; that to leave this oasis may cost you one of your three runs through the temple. Some illusions never die. 

*On the off chance that this post outlives the reference here (Donald Trump, Announcement Speech 2015); I should comment that it is of dubious factual merit that Mexicans actually rape, murder or otherwise perpetrate violent crimes at a higher rate than their northern neighbors.

Friday, June 15, 2018

#22b. France. The Moveable Feast.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. - Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast

For a nostalgist like me - Hemingway's time in Paris seemed the perfect life. Living a humble existence with his young wife and small son on a street near the Luxembourg Gardens. Waking up and going to the review office for a few hours, then making your way to a cafe patio to write into the late morning and in the late afternoon to the basement of the American Club to box. Getting by with doing what you loved, but still just getting by, to the point that after your bills were paid you chose between buying 'pictures' or 'books' because that's what really mattered (or so Papa would have us believe... many biographers have pointed out he was making the equivalent of $60k while living this 'humble existence' in Paris - quite enough for pictures and books and even a drink here and there). When evening came, surrounding yourself with a group of friends living the same life as you: Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. Doing it all over again the next day, only to be split up by the occasional trip to Pamplona, Milan, or Chamonix. I've followed him on some of these journeys: to the town of Burgette in Northern Spain where he brought wine skins and stored them in the Irati river while fishing for trout before the bullfights... to the plains of Amboseli, Kenya where he served as game warden and wrote True at First Light and developed his lifelong passion for safari and Africa ... but I'd never followed him to Paris - his home base throughout all of this adventure. And now here we were. 

You've probably sensed now that I have an obsession. If I had not been forced against my will to read Old Man and the Sea in 11th grade it may have even began earlier. As a high schooler I remember how dry it was. His simple straightforward writing style about a not all that interesting topic in a totally uninteresting setting was a bore to me. It wasn't until much later that I came to appreciate how all of this illuminated the ordinary things. How it made one find romance in a trout stream or an old wooded cabin. Coming to Paris marked the next and probably most significant chapter in this search for Papa H, and there were many chapters to this book by now. 

So naturally, on arriving in Paris, I tried to recreate his idyllic and romantic time here. Oh hey! Nice little patio to have a drink and enjoy people watching, sure, we'll sit down! Two hours later after bad drinks, poor service, and a mediocre hamburger (yes, hamburger), I often found myself disappointed with my little recreations. But then I managed to convince Jenn to walk far out of the way to visit Closerie de Lilas one night (she had after all dragged me to all the best known bakeries all across town). Closerie was his favorite place in Paris, where all of his first serious works began to take their shape... Up In MichiganIn Our Time, The Sun Also Rises... it kept warm in the winter and the patio was pleasant in the spring, or so he said. This was the Hemingway equivalent of Da Vinci, Edison or Michelangelo's workshop . So we went and sat down one evening on the patio. The menu had a big picture of Hemingway on the inside cover. O.K... Cheesy. But it was tastefully done and I can't say if he would have loved it or hated it. I ordered a drink that he would have liked (read: any of them) - and the nerding out was underway. I remember at some point telling Jenn that this was my version of Disney world, all the while spewing out to the poor girl all of the useless Hemingway trivia I could remember. The patio was clean and nice and well lit. They had good cheese and a very decent piano player. And that's all Hemingway would have said about that.

The rest of Paris was very much a series of boxes to be checked seeing as it was my first time in there, and there are certain things you just don't miss if you only spend one time in Paris. Versailles. Which made me so disappointed in my lawn upkeep. Even today when I trim my bushes I am never far from the thought that I would be making Louis XIV so, so disappointed  Then the Lourvre, with its people. And all the paintings I learned about in art history class. And its people. And the Mona Lisa. And the people crowding the Mona Lisa. Did you know it would probably not have been so famous had it not been stolen once? This was a fun tidbit our Scottish guide shared with us. Then there was the Champ de Mars which we visited at night. At the top of each hour after sundown the Eiffel Tower glitters with a light show which is nice especially when enjoying it with your wife and a cheap bottle of Champagne in a plastic cup. There is some magic to the place that exists only in Paris. 

While living in Las Vegas a few times I'd gone to "Paris" before work, walked to the street-scape and ordered a cafe au lait and a croissant dreaming of this day that I would be there. These mornings my illusion was normally foiled by overweight 40 something women in Viva Las Vegas shirts stumbling about  with yard margaritas, but nonetheless I enjoyed the illusion while it lasted. So after the light show and some carefully composed night time exposures with the camera (none of which turned out well)  we got in an Uber, chatted about Israeli politics with the driver and returned to the hotel.

I have to imagine that Paris has lost some of its romance and charm since the 1920's when Hemingway roamed its streets. But to quote the always wise Woody Allen.. Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - it's a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present. I don't know if he believed this, as it was voiced by Paul, the pretentious know it all in his comedy Midnight in Paris, and I have to image Woody is a nostalgist himself.  But it's difficult not to be when walking those streets. How they inspired not just Hemingway but generations of writers, artists and scientists who we still benefit from today. For the rest of my life, it will stay with me, for as someone once said: it's a moveable feast.

Monday, May 28, 2018

#22. France. Day of Days

D DAY -1.  H HOUR -14

Along the Loire River southwest of Paris was the frontier of Nazi Occupied France. To the south beyond it laid Vichy France, the people there still under the thumb of the Germans, but living to a certain degree more autonomously than the rest of their countrymen subject to the German occupation following the fall of Paris in 1940. Chateaux Perreaux, built in the mid-18th century as the estate of a landowner likely soon to be stripped of his possessions during the French Revolution, was tonight where we stayed. Just north across the river from the small town of Amboise, in 1944 it served as a headquarters of sorts for German officers. They picked it likely for similar reasons as we did when looking through Trip Advisor... it was gorgeous... quaint and far from any big towns or people, but also big and opulent enough to afford all the comforts of home to men who were likely being given leave from a tour on the eastern front. It had a greenhouse, a well manicured ground, a pool (ok not sure if that was there in the 40's). I wonder how the nightmares of Stalingrad, Kursk or Smolensk must have caused those Germans so long ago trouble in finding this beautiful place so peaceful as we did. But they did not have the cheerful Francisco, the comfort of their wife, or NyQuil.

By 1944 the border of Free France and Nazi occupied France had disappeared. After the Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans had poured into the south of France and divided the country into the Zone Sud and Zone Nord. On D-Day -1, H-Hour -14 as we had dinner across from the Chateaux d'amboise, this was no longer a frontier, it was in the heart of an occupied territory. 26,999 days later, both quiet Monday nights, the German officers going to bed in Chateau Perreaux as we were about to were oblivious that in only a few more hours, men of the 82nd and 101st airborne would be parachuting down on towns only 150 miles to their north, unleashing a confusion from which the Wehrmacht would never recover.

D DAY.  H HOUR - 5

That room in the top of Chateaux Perreaux was still silent. Jenn wanted to shutter the windows before bed so that we could keep out some of the light when morning came, but on account of the wine and my tiredness I couldn't figure out how to do it before bed. So at 0030 the wind blew in, the crickets chirped and the sound of the nearby stream was faintly heard from the wide open windows. Jenn was sound asleep and I woke to use the bathroom. On the way back to bed I went to the window.  The moon was in its last quarter, casting a light glow on the lawn down below from the top floor of the chateaux. And I went back to bed.

172 miles to the northwest D-Day had begun. Men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Infantry Divisions were dropping into Normandy. Had history not turned out the way it did, the landings would likely be described as a disaster. Most men missed their drop zone by dozens of miles. Meticulous plans and designated landing zones and rally points were not even closely attained in the early morning hours of June 6th. The town oSainte-Mere-Eglise was no different. Meant to be a objective and rally point for men of the 82nd airborne dropped on its outskirts, it became a landing zone itself. Its namesake church, flaming buildings and German garrison made it decidedly not an ideal spot for a defenseless paratrooper to float down on at 0140 on June 6th. More than 20 men landed in the square of the city, some like helpless pieces of kindling right down into the inferno raging in the Hairon house off the main square. But it was all underway. Soon, 13,000 paratroopers would be in Normandy


As we slept, so many years ago on that Tuesday morning a battle was beginning to rage in Normandy. While we packed, woke and had a leisurely European breakfast (croissants, coffee and a soft boiled egg) 5,000 ships were unloading over 100,000 American, British and Canadian troops onto the beaches of Normandy one hour after daybreak. We drove north, and in full nerd out mode I imagined myself driving towards the front of battle on that morning, maybe a German officer who had woken up in Chateaux Perreaux as we did having been alerted of trouble on the northern coast and had been rushing to see it. The Norman countryside passed as a green blur as we drove north past Le Mans, Alencon, and then Caen. We passed where the German Panzer divisions would have been sitting idle in reserve at H-Hour +4, totally capable of pushing the allies back into the sea, but awaiting orders from Hitler who had personally stipulated that their movements were his call alone... unfortunately for the Germans, Hitler was sound asleep at his mountain home in Berchtesgaden, his staff officers not having the heart to wake him and alert him of what they believed to be a diversionary and unimportant allied maneuver.

We approached the beach through what would be codenamed Entrance D-1, a narrow gap and in the bluffs which would be a key objective for the men landing there. Protected with barbed wire fields and mines, the Americans would be sitting ducks until they could push through to here - we passed through unopposed the opposite way and made our way down to the beach. It's was an eerie thing, stepping foot down on the sand of the beach which would become known as Omaha. Maybe not unlike walking into a reception hall the day after a wedding, or seeing Mile-High Stadium totally empty after it had been packed the night before. The quiet is all that more pronounced, when you considered what happened in this place. What an incredible history changing event that had happened on these otherwise unremarkable beaches. I was surprised by how unimposing they were in fact - and when we stood on the beach wall, I began to appreciate in a whole new way what havoc the Germans firing their MG-42's at 1,200 rounds/minute with a firing range up to 2,000 m could have had on men unloading from landing craft just 100 m away. As we walked I could imagine the drone of the landing craft, the boom of artillery landing on the beach, the endless pop-pop-pop of the MG-42's... all being braved by boys who were not even of drinking age yet. These were the boys that would establish the beach-head, push into Nazi occupied France and bring down Hitler's Germany - and thousands of them never made it off of that beach.

Their gravestones we passed in the nearby cemetery... Joseph Rafferty, Captain, 2 Ranger Battalion of Pennsylvania: June 6, 1944; David Goudey, Private First Class, 2 Ranger Battalion of New Jersey: June 6th, 1944; George Eberle, 1st Lieutenant, 502 Parachute Infantry, 101 Airborne Division of New York: June 6th 1944; Charles Mobley, Sergeant, 41st Infantry 2 Armored, of Alabama: July 10th 1944. My camera clicked and clicked as if capturing these names and re-telling their story in some obscure corner of the internet would do some small honor to their memory 74 years later. The day was May 7th, and this place was a reminder of what France would celebrate tomorrow: VE day. The day of the Nazi surrender to the Allies and the end of the war in Europe. Even though so many Americans died for this outcome, for the French it was not just the day that your son, brother or father got to come back from overseas, it was the liberation of your homeland. As we headed back to the car, I was proud of the contribution our country had made to this end, and I hoped that we would never forget it.

D DAY.  H HOUR +12

The sun had begun to set as we ended our day in Normandy in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the small town where 18 hours before on D-Day men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne had (in many cases inadvertently) landed. The town was peaceful tonight. No fires raging, no paratroopers hanging from the steeple of the church (except the dummy which still hangs there today), no panicked Germans roused from their sleep and spraying anything that moved with their Mausers. We'd picked Sainte-Mere-Eglise for its peacefulness, the big Norman church in the square built in the style that would be the inspiration for Kumler Chapel, where my wife and I had gotten married 6 years before. 12 hours after H-Hour, the town was still being contested by the scattered paratroopers and 100 man strong German garrison.  Not until the next day would reinforcements from Utah beach arrive. Tonight was going to be a long night for those Americans. But as for us, we enjoyed a beer on the patio, had some nice Thai food, and Jenn caught up on her journal at the small desk. We were in bed by 2200 in our room just off the square of the big church. At 0700 as the bells marked the hour, we were up and ready to head to Paris, leaving behind Normandy and ready for our next adventure.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

My Defining Day

the snow is falling. this is the day. i leave the front door of our apartment. the big flakes fall and against the black SUV parked in front of the building they seem so much bigger and whiter.

its so cold. the exhaust of the SUV makes a cloud. abby and I veer right and continue to walk.   you are still inside and i wonder whats going on in your mind. this is your day, our day, but your day really. i wonder how you are feeling and if all of the classes we have taken have prepared you. i wonder if the practice with the pillows and all of the things we've been told are real or will be helpful. are you scared? i am. i wonder if he will be ok. the baby who doesn't have a name maybe its benjamin or jacob or lincoln who knows but i wonder if he will be ok and i wonder if you will be ok. i think i will be ok but im nervous too. i wont tell you any of this because im strong and i think you need that.

but i walk down this hill. its not a long walk and ive done it many times with abby. we're heading to rose in not many minutes, and kelley will come soon but i wanted to make sure she had a walk first - we will leave soon to rose and be gone for a few days and your pack is ready but abby needs a walk. we will see her soon but this will be it for a while.

we open the door, go up the stairs and back into the apartment. its small and the nursery is ready. soon its going to feel a lot smaller. i wonder if the baby will cry a lot. is he going to bother our neighbors? i wonder what having a baby is going to be like. i wonder if you are scared. for his health? of the pain? of raising him? im thinking of all of these. but theres no turning back now.

we get into the car. theres a car seat in the back now. how surreal that there will be a baby in that car seat the next time we drive back into the garage of our apartment building. i hope the roads aren't bad on our way back. theyre not bad now but those snowflakes are still coming down as we drive up monaco and its actually very pretty. im glad we live close. i would not like this drive so much if it were very far, but today its pretty and today im driving with purpose and its not so far.

its funny that it feels like were checking into a hotel. the room is nice. theres a bed for you, a nice chair. a little cot for me to sleep. its a little like a hotel but with a lot more gadgets around the room and were not on vacation. you get into your gown and i snap a few pictures of you. your smile is radiant and you dont seem all that apprehensive. im surprised that you seem to be doing so well. im a little apprehensive. but i dont ever stress out about things so i wont tell you that im a little apprehensive.

your mom comes. she seems apprehensive for you. if there has to be someone apprehensive ill let it be your mom. not you and not me because you just need to relax and you seem to be. i dont remember the timelines but i remember people came and people went. i remember the nurses coming in and giving you IVs and giving you medicines. i don't remember the name, provid, or providium or potosuin, or something like that that is supposed to move things along faster. i remember your sister and talking and everyone keeping their voice down because this is a serious day. i remember the chips and the snacks that everyone brought and i remember the scotch that your dad brought but we'll have that after the baby is here.

someone had brought chinese food or was it thai and i went to the waiting room to eat some. i had the latest news so everyone wanted to talk to me but there wasnt much news except that you had taken the potosin or the provide and that things probably shouldnt take too much longer.

things started moving more quickly after the P medicine. you started to feel more uncomfortable and everyone left the room except for me and the nurse. we had talked about whether you wanted to be medicated and hadnt decided but after you started to feel uncomfortable you decided that you wanted it.

the nurse left the room and went to get the anesthesiologist but she took a long time. you started to get uncomfortable because the pain was coming so I went out and asked and they said he was on his way and i was quite forceful with the nurse even though I was trying to be kind but the pain in your face made me forceful.

finally the guy came and he had you sit up and face me and put an IV into your spine and it was a little too late because the pain was already there and i could see it in your face but you were still strong - i think you told the anesthesiologist that you loved him and he made small talk with us to take your mind off the fact that we was putting a shot in your spine. it would all be over soon.

now the doctor is here and things are serious and time is both flying by and standing still. im standing at your head but I want to know how it is coming along so I look to see but what do I know if things are coming along except that I see some things are different and that you probably do not want to see these things but that all seems normal from way all I can tell. His head now. but ill looks a little more like an alien than I would of thought and now they want me to cut his cord and what does that mean and how do I do it but I guess theyll show me.

dad bring him to the weight and height table as hes crying and hes grabbing onto my finger but this tiny little grip on my finger is the most beautiful thing ive ever felt in my life. well take his height and then ill give him to his mommy and now he will be ok. we don't know your name but we know that we are now happy. god had never given such a gift to us. so went January 4th 2017.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

My son.

How much I have dreamed my whole life to see you. And now here you are.

You dance. Your knees pop up and down to Raffi while I look on. Where did you learn to jump like this?

You cry. Somehow it makes me smile and crushes my heart all at the same time. You have figured out how to move me.

You laugh. A splash in the bathtub, food thrown on the floor for Abby. You light up a room with your innocent joy.

You stand. I have not seen it yet except in mommy's snaps and in the pool in Cabo. How courageous you have become.

One day I know you will be a man of purpose and strength. Leading your own family. Charting your own course.

But for now, when you crawl to my foot and say "up"...  one of only a few words you know... I melt... And pick you up.

Can't time be frozen?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

On Safari: The Migration

On the third morning, we left the Namiri Plain for the Saronara airstrip where we'd entered the Serengeti a few days before. We piled into the Cessna Caravan and climbed away from the plains, the yellow grasses dotted by deep green acacia trees becoming like an impressionist painting laid wide out towards the horizon. The landscape below us we came to know as one teeming with wildlife, a place that one should not stray even a few feet from the car at the risk of coming face to face with something with much larger teeth than you. But now, from a few thousand feet, it was peaceful. You could make out the shambas below which dotted the horizon, their circular shape and scattered huts making up the living unit of the Maasai who inhabited the outskirts of the national park.

The flight was a short one. In only about 30 minutes we began our descent into the Kogatende airstrip on the Kenya/Tanzania border. The plane's wheels touched down and sped along for a few hundred yards kicking up a cloud of dirt. Our new guides greeted us with wide smiles and friendly faces. After a quick stop at park headquarters to check us in while we waited in the car, we were off on our way to camp, a handful of semi-permanent tents set up near the Mara River for the migration season. As our cars rumbled down the dirt path towards camp we parted skittish groups of wildebeest. They seemed to always wait for the very last second to decide which way they'd run, and when the car was finally upon them they seemed offended and surprised that you didn't stop. It was a dance the driver seemed accustomed to and it barely slowed him down. The wildebeest seemed formidable creatures, almost like lean and quick bulls, with their sharp horns and stocky figures giving the impression of strength, but this turned out to be a complete deception. The wildebeest were creatures of extreme caution and fear. A single person walking among a herd of thousands would cause them to create a wide circular berth so as to leave a hundred yards of space on every side. These creatures we learned were the most successful of all antelopes at survival and procreation in the whole of Serengeti. Their caution to predators was evident in that we never got close enough to touch one, even though we were never far from thousands of them.

By the hundreds of thousands, these creatures venture many miles north each summer to follow the rains which ultimately provide them their food. Our goal was to follow them in this journey... and by good planning by our guides, we were not unsuccessful. We arrived in the northern Serengeti along the Mara River among a herd which reminded me of what buffalo in the old west must have been like. Up close the herd certainly made an impressive sight, but the really amazing thing as you looked out across the plains to the horizon it just became a solid brown haze until they disappeared. I'd never seen anything remotely like it. It was as if we were looking at the night sky and the wildebeest were the stars. They moved not as individuals, but as if they were one big family. If one moved, others followed. If one ran, several others became curious and alarmed. These were not individual creatures, they were all one.

During the early hours of our second day at camp, we got word that excitement was afoot on the Mara river. One of the main reasons people come to this area is to witness a 'crossing'. This is when a herd decides that the rains (and thus, food) are better on the opposite side of the Mara and to cross is the only option for survival. The guide's radio reported a large herd seemed to be contemplating this, so we raced down to the riverbank. Sure enough, a herd of thousands was standing on the shore of the Mara, obviously debating a crossing of the crocodile and hippo filled rushing waters. It would only take one brave leader to go... and after that, thousands would follow.

After waiting for several minutes and deciding this would likely not happen today, one finally went. And then all behind him. Before we knew it the entire herd was in action and thousands were making their way down into the river. What previously appeared as skittish and cowardly creatures were now jumping to their peril into a crocodile infested river to get to a better feeding ground on the other side. Ever hear that saying 'well if your friend jumped off a bridge does that mean you would too?"... absolutely, says the wildebeest.

It left an impression on me that although these creatures were so silly and awkward that they have been the most successful of all the creatures in the Serengeti in staying alive and looking after one another... What beauty they created as a unit. What calm they showed as they created a one hundred yard berth around us or a hyena. This creature knew its place and was all the better for it. The silly sounding bleat that they let out by the hundreds played over and over in my head the next few nights as we settled into camp. The survival story of this this very quick and herd-like animal also told lessons. And as night fell on the Serengeti, I listened to the sounds; the distant bleats of the sleepy wildebeest, the mesmerizing chirps of the crickets, but also the silence. The silence that I expected based on a few nights before would be interrupted with a lion's roar... but tonight this was not the case. I went to bed in peace, thinking of the wildebeest making his dash across the river... his family of thousands parting like the Red Sea as we drove down the road. Although we had not left the Serengeti, what a different world this was.